Writing Multiple-Choice Questions
tackling Improving Sentences
Unlike Sentence Error IDs, Sentence Improvements require not only that you recognize a mistake but also that you recognize how to fix it. Like Sentence Error IDs, some Sentence Improvements will have no error.
Here’s the Sentence Improvement item you saw earlier:
1. Eager to pass his final exams, studying was the student’s top priority.
(A) studying was the student’s top priority.
(B) the student made studying his top priority.
(C) the top priority of the student was studying.
(D) the student’s top priority was studying.
(E) studying was the top priority for the student.
Sentence Improvements look like the typical SAT item: the stem is followed by the answer choices. The correct answer will be the best choice from among the answer choices, “best” meaning the clearest and most precise statement available. The correct answer will not introduce a new error. This allows for a few backward strategies, which we’ll soon present.
Use the following method every time you attempt a Sentence Improvement:
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
Step 2: Read the stem carefully and determine what type of word, phrase, or clause is underlined.
Step 3: Ask yourself whether the underlined portion, in the context of the entire sentence, is in error. If not, choose A.
Step 4: If there is an error, generate a potential fix without looking at the answer choices.
Step 5: Compare your fix to the answer choices and eliminate all those that do not match.
Step 6: Check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence.
Here are some important notes on each step of this method:
  • Step 1: Remember that four of the answer choices are distractors. To undermine their effectiveness, ignore them until you have a good idea of what the fix should be. Get yourself a 3-by-5-inch index card to cover up the answer choices; using your hand is a bit cumbersome.
  • Step 2: Again, the idea is not to waste time coming up with grammatical terminology but rather to use the names of the essential concepts you’ve mastered to help predict fixes.
  • Step 3: Remember, context is critical. Every essential concept is important here: agreement, parallel structure, modification, and so on.
  • Step 4: Having an idea of what the correct answer should be before looking at the answer choices undermines the distractors’ effectiveness and saves you time.
  • Step 5: Develop some flexibility when comparing your idea of the correct answer to the answer choices. Recall that some errors can be fixed in multiple ways, all of which are equally correct. Errors in parallelism are a good example of this phenomenon. I like singing and to dance can be corrected by writing I like singing and dancing or I like to sing and to dance.
  • Step 6: Brisk movement through a section is important, but getting points is the goal. Balance speed with accuracy by taking a few seconds to test your potential selection by plugging it back into the stem.
Sentence Improvement in Slow Motion
Let’s apply this method by attempting item 1 in slow motion, making all thought processes explicit.
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
We’ll do this for you:
1. Eager to pass his final exams, studying was the student’s top priority.
Step 2: Read the stem carefully and determine what type of word, phrase, or clause is underlined.
Studying was the student’s top priority is a clause preceded by an introductory clause. Since the SAT just loves to test clause structure, you’ve isolated the likely category of error.
Step 3: Ask yourself whether the underlined portion, in the context of the entire sentence, is in error. If not, choose A.
Exactly who is eager to pass his final exams, the student or studying? We’ve got an error here! You can eliminate A.
Step 4: If there is an error, generate a potential fix without looking at the answer choices.
Put the student next to the introductory clause:
Eager to pass his final exams, the student’s top priority was studying.
Do not actually write down your potential fix, as doing so is almost certainly a waste of time. Scribble down the key point, if that helps. In this case: “the student’s” might be all you’d need to jot down in the margin of your test book. Experience will dictate what works best for you in particular situations.
Step 5: Compare your fix to the answer choices and eliminate all those that do not match.
Now you can look at the answer choices:
(A) studying was the student’s top priority.
(B) the student made studying his top priority.
(C) the top priority of the student was studying.
(D) the student’s top priority was studying.
(E) studying was the top priority for the student.
The answer is D. B looks okay, but it is less concise than D. Sometimes you’ll predict the precise answer; other times you won’t. For some errors, the fix is almost predetermined; for others, more than one potential fix will do. The more clauses in the item, the more likely it will be that more than one fix could apply.
Step 6: Check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence.
Always do this, even when certain of your answer. Gaining even one point on the SAT test will make this extra, split-second step worthwhile.
Sentence Improvement in Reverse: Backward Strategies
We’d like to point out a few important strategies that you can resort to when you’re running out of time, or when you’re just stumped:
Eliminated A? Guess Away! If you’re sure something is wrong with the underlined portion of the sentence, but you’re not quite sure of what it is, just guess! As with eliminating E in Sentence Error ID, eliminating A in Sentence Improvement puts you ahead of the wrong-answer penalty.
Original Intent Remember that the correct answer cannot change the original meaning of the sentence. If you’re stuck, eliminate any answer choices that change the original meaning in some way.
Read My Lips: No New Errors The correct answer cannot introduce a new error. If you don’t know exactly what’s wrong with a sentence, or cannot come up with a good prediction in a timely manner, eliminate any answer choices that contain a new error.
Groupthink A particularly useful strategy derives from how the SAT structures Sentence Improvement answer choices. Look at the following item again:
We’ve bolded the first word or two to highlight that Sentence Improvement answer choices tend to fall into discrete groups. It’s unusual to see five totally different answer choices. Grouping makes the process of elimination all the more powerful because, if you can eliminate a group, you eliminate several answer choices in one fell swoop.
In this case, you have an introductory clause that may very well be a dangler: Eager to pass his final exams. Therefore your attention is already focused on what that clause should be modifying. You’re choosing between:
If you notice this grouping feature of the answer choices, it can help you troubleshoot three different scenarios:
Scenario 1: Trouble with time
If you don’t have the time to check all the possibilities, eliminate what you know to be wrong and guess from the remaining. For example, if you had decided that this sentence was in error, A would be automatically eliminated. Since A and E group, E is also eliminated. You’ve beaten the wrong-answer penalty, so guess away.
Scenario 2: Trouble identifying the error
If you’re having trouble identifying the error in the stem (or whether there is an error in the stem), determining the answer-choice groupings can alert you to the potential error. In this case, the three groups of answer choices can help trigger your memory of the essential concept of dangling modifiers.
Scenario 3: Trouble predicting a fix
If you’re having trouble predicting a fix, go to the answer choices and use grouping not only to trigger your memory of essential concepts but also to efficiently work backward, eliminating potential groups of answer choices in sequence.
The Ultimate Shortcut
A final, last-ditch strategy is simply to choose the shortest answer choice. This is often, but not always, the correct choice. Whether you deploy this strategy will be a matter of judgment while taking the test. The more you practice, the better your judgment will be.
We’ll put these backward strategies in the context of handling Sentence Improvement sets and whole Writing sections later on in this book.
Let’s do some practice.
Guided Practice
Try the following item on your own:
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
We’ll do this for you:
2. Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity, this was the group’s farewell tour.
Step 2: Read the stem carefully and determine what type of word, phrase, or clause is underlined.
Write down the type of word, phrase, or clause.
Step 3: Ask yourself whether the underlined portion, in the context of the entire sentence, is in error. If not, choose A.
Write down whether you think there is an error and what type of error it is. In this case, the entire sentence is underlined. This occurs every so often on the test.
Step 4: If there is an error, generate a potential fix without looking at the answer choices.
Write down your potential fix.
Step 5: Compare your fix to the answer choices and eliminate all those that do not match.
Compare your potential fix to the answer choices provided below. Remember that you can use grouping and other backward strategies.
(A) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity, this was the group’s farewell tour.
(B) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity this was the group’s farewell tour.
(C) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity. This was the group’s farewell tour.
(D) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity, this farewell tour was the group’s last hurrah.
(E) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity; this show was the last hurrah of the group’s career.
Step 6: Check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence.
It’s always worthwhile to do this.
Guided Practice Explanation
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
We did this for you.
Step 2: Read the stem carefully and determine what type of word, phrase, or clause is underlined.
For this item, you have two independent clauses (i.e., two clauses that could stand alone).
Step 3: Ask yourself whether the underlined portion, in the context of the entire sentence, is in error. If not, choose A.
At this point, warning indicators in your head should be flashing: “Clause structure! Clause structure!” while a calm, deep voice repeats: “Do not panic. Please proceed directly to the connection between the clauses.”
Since it is not okay to join two independent clauses with a comma, there is an error here.
Step 4: If there is an error, generate a potential fix without looking at the answer choices.
Remember that if commas are pauses, and periods are full stops, then semicolons are somewhere closer to a period than a comma. Semicolons can connect independent clauses:

Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity; this was the group’s farewell tour.

Step 5: Compare your fix to the answer choices and eliminate all those that do not match.
Lift your 3-by-5-inch card to reveal:
(A) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity, this was the group’s farewell tour.
(B) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity this was the group’s farewell tour.
(C) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity. This was the group’s farewell tour.
(D) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity, this farewell tour was the group’s last hurrah.
(E) Tickets to see the veteran rock group’s show were a hot commodity; this show was the last hurrah of the group’s career.
There are often many possible fixes. If your prediction isn’t there, find an equivalent one in the choices.
In this case, C works just fine. Periods can also separate independent clauses.
Note, too, how the choices grouped:
E is not incorrect but C is better. It is more succinct and active than E. Answer E uses correct punctuation, but it introduces the passive voice and unnecessary words (the last hurrah).
Given the many potential fixes and the various backward strategies that can be employed, you may find yourself alternating between the stem, your prediction, and the answer choices in the manner we just demonstrated. This is to be expected. As your proficiency with Sentence Improvements increases, you’ll learn to alternate with increasing skill and speed.
Finally, take a moment to see the various ways in which you could have eliminated different groups of answer choices if you’d been stumped or pressed for time.
Step 6: Check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence.
Always do this, as it is worthwhile every time.
Independent Practice
After you complete the following item, look on the following page for the explanation.
2. For as long as she could remember, Brenda has loved to paint, to knit, and, until her hearing loss made it impossible for her to do so, listening to opera.
(A) to paint, to knit, and, until her hearing loss made it impossible for her to do so,
(B) painting, to knit, and, until her hearing loss made it impossible for her to do so,
(C) painting, knitting, and, until her hearing loss made it impossible for her to do so,
(D) to paint, to knit, and, until she lost her hearing,
(E) painting, knitting, and, until she lost her hearing,
Independent Practice Explanation
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
Always do this.
Step 2: Read the stem carefully and determine what type of word, phrase, or clause is underlined.
There is the beginning of a series here: to paint, to knit, and . . . There is also a subordinate clause, until her hearing loss made it impossible for her to do so.
Step 3: Ask yourself whether the underlined portion, in the context of the entire sentence, is in error. If not, choose A.
A series should trigger your memory of the essential concept of parallelism. Also, note the typical insertion of a camouflaging intervening clause. Don’t let that fool you.
Step 4: If there is an error, generate a potential fix without looking at the answer choices.
Usually there would be two equivalent fixes for nonparallel series: all-infinitive or all-gerund. Note, however, that listening to opera is not underlined. That means it has to be taken as a given feature of any fixed sentence: it can’t be changed, which rules out the all-infinitive option.
There is only one workable potential fix:

For as long as she could remember, Brenda has loved painting, knitting, and, until her hearing loss made it impossible for her to do so, listening to opera.

Step 5: Compare your fix to the answer choices and eliminate all those that do not match.
Here are those answer choices again:
(A) to paint, to knit, and, until her hearing loss made it impossible for her to do so,
(B) painting, to knit, and, until her hearing loss made it impossible for her to do so,
(C) painting, knitting, and, until her hearing loss made it impossible for her to do so,
(D) to paint, to knit, and, until she lost her hearing,
(E) painting, knitting, and, until she lost her hearing,
C matches your prediction. But wait—note how the choices group:
At this point, you already know that A, B, and D are out. But what about E? Don’t be so married to your potential fix that you refrain from entertaining another answer choice that matches the key part of your potential fix.
E, it turns out, is actually better than C. It’s more concise, which counts for a lot on the SAT.
Look again at step 2 in this explanation. We noted that there were actually two separate types of phrases in the underlined portion of the stem: the series and the subordinate clause. Also note how there is not one but two different ways to group the answer choices, each way tied to one of the two separate types of phrases in the underlined section:
First Grouping
Second Grouping
Compare the two groupings, and you will quickly whittle down to the best answer.
Again, we’re purposely dragging out this explanation—in slow motion, so to speak—in order to make the thought processes totally clear. The more you practice, the faster you’ll get.
Step 6: Check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence.
Will I always do this? Yes, you will. Is it always worthwhile to do so? Yes.
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